home again

Muddy. Like the murky shallows of Trinity Lake when the waters have drop-drop-dropped and sucked the shoreline muck into red clay pools swirled with yesterday’s bath water. Like the ash falling from nearby fires, engulfing an entire state in smoke and soot, a sickly yellow fog no place should ever see (let alone breathe). My thoughts were hazy.

Who am I? And why am I here?

I needed distance. Distance from the he-said-she-said. Distance from the rush-rush-rush of hurryupandwaiting. Distance from the clammy humid-cloud that enveloped me the moment I opened my front door.

In all of my years in Tennessee and abroad, I have never been so homesick.

I flew West on July 12 and cried when I landed at the San Francisco International Airport. I laughed when I heard a passenger complaining about California’s gun laws. I smiled when I shivered as I walked to my rental car. I was home.

Home with all of its myriads of problems is still home.

I spent three weeks visiting friends and family. I played with my 15-month-old nephew. I sorted through childhood memory boxes and read old letters and journal entries. I relived my twenties like a movie watched in reverse—this is who I am; this is why I’m here . . . Here not only in location, but in body, mind, and spirit. Here in loyalty. Here in love. I’m here I’m here I’m-here I’m-here-I’m-HERE.

It’s raining today in Knoxville, pouring buckets in a fashion California rarely sees (and sorely needs). I’m not home anymore. But this is home for now, for reasons I must cling to, no matter life’s sea.

After all, those reasons are ME.

 

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a dangerous business

“Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” — Hellen Keller

There’s a back story to this. It’s coming.

I moved to Tennessee knowing no one. It’s been a lonely adventure—until recently. That’s the back story. The now-story is that, within the past few weeks I’ve tried several things I never thought I would, or thought I might but had no idea when.

I’ve hung out with a group of strangers playing games like “Killer Queen” and “Cards Against Humanity.” I’ve gone to a medieval fair. I’ve rock climbed for the second time since my accident. Tomorrow I’m headed out to play paintball, and in a couple of weeks I’m participating in a dragon boat race . . . Heck, in a few months I might even go sky diving!

Life is strange!

 

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The way I’ve survived until now, though, is by getting out. When I was lonely, I went out and exercised. This didn’t always help, but when I finished I’d text or call my closest friends. I looked for interesting events around town. I’ve seen Blind Pilot, Jason Mraz, Lucy Rose, and Charlie Cunningham in concert since moving to Knoxville. (Okay, so Jason Mraz might not have helped. All of his songs are love songs, and I might have cried through half the concert. But still . . .) I’ve gone to and participated in poetry slams. Last week I saw the comedian Henry Cho in downtown Knoxville, and a few months ago I was thrilled to see Steve Martin and Martin Short at their show in Chattanooga.
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I’ve done anything and everything I can to get my introverted self out the door and in places where I knew I might meet people. And nine months into my adventure here in Knoxville, it’s finally paying off. Nine months later, I’m meeting an incredibly diverse group of humans who are proving a point I made early on after moving home from Hong Kong: People are people. And people are beautiful.

My journey isn’t over yet. Life is full of ups and downs, and most of my days are still very quiet. But if I’ve learned anything in the last three years, it’s to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You never know what a day will bring once you force yourself out the door. The trick is forcing yourself out the door.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

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why i do this

I ran a trail race today. I’ve never run a trail race before. It’s been raining a lot in Knoxville. The trail was slick as hell.

This morning when my alarm went off before sunrise, I groaned: Why am I doing this again? After the race, when I was discussing the course with friends, I realized I would have only just gotten up if I’d slept in. This is why I do this . . .

img_3421During the run, I saw a guy wearing a shirt advertising the La Jolla Half Marathon. He was talking to a buddy about trail races in San Diego. “You from California?” I couldn’t help but ask. “Nah,” he said. “Went out there for college; just moved back.” Still running, he raised his hands to the canopy of leaves above us. “I missed this . . .” He seemed to forget me for a moment, then resurfaced. “And you? You from Cali?” “Yes, I’m from Cali—born and raised. I miss it, but I like Knoxville, too.”

Both were true.

Last weekend, I did a sprint triathlon. The scenario was the same. Why am I doing this? . . . Oh yeah, this is why I’m doing this. I commented to a friend afterward that I still find warm Tennessee mornings strange. In California it’s always cold at night and in the early morning. I miss that about home, but the warmer weather here does help during triathlons.

After another event a man said to me: “I lived in Cali for eight months, in Oakland. I never really could get used to it—didn’t understand what all the hype was about.” “Oh yeah?” I said. “Yeah. It‘s so expensive, and the traffic is awful, and . . . ” “But what about the beaches?” I pressed. “Places like Mendocino or the Bay—they’re so pretty!” “But the water is so cold!” he said.

The water is cold, I’ll give him that. But also, you find what you look for.

 

I have friends, so many friends, who have never left their hometown. People stay where they’re comfortable—most stay in the same place their whole lives. It’s easier to do this, certainly. I’ve moved around a lot, and moving is HARD. It’s hard to make friends in places and then leave them; it’s hard to never have roots. But after the initial adjustment period in a new town—after you no longer have to ask Siri for directions to get home, and when you’re finally making friends, and when you’re getting involved in things around town—suddenly, it makes sense. This is why I do this.

I do this to grow and to see and to experience different places in the world. I do this to push myself and to relate better to others, no matter where they’re from. I do this to better understand myself and to challenge my beliefs about the world. I do this because what I learned in Taiwan is true: There is no “better,” there is no “best.” All that exists among the world’s various regions and climates is “different,” and it is these differences that make that make our world interesting and beautiful. It is these differences that make our lives worth living.

So please, dear readers, stop fearing change. Stop taking the easy route. Move if you feel stagnant. Move even if you don’t feel stagnant. Growth cannot happen without change. Happiness cannot happen without growth.

Trust me. After almost a year, I can finally say: Knoxville is starting to feel a little bit like “home.”

 

 

 

 

 

lemonade, anyone?

There’s that saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Haha, we laugh. Sure. I don’t even like lemonade, but you got it.

Life has given me a lot of lemons over the past ten years.

Yeah, yeah. “Look for the positive — focus on the good!” Isn’t that the other phrase we hear? Easy to say, much easier said than done.

But still we try. Or at least we move on. Or at least we keep getting up every morning, putting two feet on the floor, and shuffling towards the door. We go through the motions without a clear picture of where we’re going — just knowing that this is what we’re supposed to do, this is how to escape the fog and move towards the light.

Someday things will make sense.

We hope.

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Stairway into the fog at Dalmaji Hill, Busan, South Korea, taken on my trip in 2011.

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A detail I never fully explained was why, as a California native, I chose to go to graduate school in Tennessee. Sure, I like Tennessee (I did go to college here), but . . . Move away from my family? Move back to the humidity? Why would any fine-haired new aunt choose to do that? (My hair is incorrigible here, and I miss my nephew so much!)

A simple reason: finances. When I was looking into graduate school, I knew I couldn’t afford to do it on my own. I didn’t want to go deep into student loan debt, so I looked into programs with assistantships that offered funding. UT was one of these, and when I was accepted, I was thrilled. But there was a catch. I’d been accepted to the program, but I hadn’t been offered funding.

Well, damn.

So last April I flew to Tennessee and met with the program’s director and, together, we hatched a crazy plan. I’d move to Tennessee, start school on my own, and reapply for funding in spring. If I got it, I’d be fully funded for the following two years. If I didn’t, well . . . I’d be back to square one.

Well — deep breath — go.

Fast-forward one year and here I am in Tennessee and for months I’ve been waiting to hear if I got funding. I wasn’t on the initial offer list (that was heartbreaking), but as everything shook out, I found out recently that I was, in fact, offered funding for next year.

There is a God, lol.

No, seriously. I’ve had my doubts.

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An optimistic view of Knoxville, looking west. Taken on a ride a couple days ago.

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It’s been all sunshine here in Knoxville for the past couple of days, and yesterday on my drive to class — in my beloved 18-year-old Jetta, sunroof open and windows rolled down — I couldn’t help feeling something I haven’t felt in a very long time: optimistic. I’m still scared sh*tless most days. The future is murky and there’s still sadness behind and a resistance to letting go and always the very real chance of being let down again (and again, and again and again and again). But somewhere in there I hope tenacity is rewarded. Grit is its own strength. And life experience — in all of its varieties — is what connects us.

It’s what’s connected me to you.

Lemonade? Anyone?

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*Lemonade image credit to Smirnoff.com

the ragnar report

I should have written this post a few days ago. I tried. But this darn thing called “work” kept getting in the way.

Ragnar was amazing. I didn’t expect it to be. In fact, in the weeks leading up to the event, I was worried about sleep deprivation and missing work and school and wondered why I’d signed up.

What is Ragnar? you might ask. Up until a year ago, I had no idea, either. Ragnar is a multi-stage, point-to-point relay race in which teams of 12 runners (or fewer, if you’re crazy) cover 200ish miles in one straight shot. Teams typically split up between two vans and stagger shifts of runners. Van 1 has runners one through six; Van 2 has runners seven through twelve. When your van isn’t running, it’s either eating or sleeping — or trying to! Ragnar Tennessee goes from Chattanooga to Nashville and covers everything from mountain climbs to farmland to city scapes. It was an amazing way to see Tennessee, but even more, it was an opportunity to meet some incredible people.

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Outside the Blue Chair coffee shop after our first run

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wide awake

The night before the race, late. Too late to write; too late to sleep.

If only you knew,
How often I think of you . . . 

How many sleepless nights,
How many thoughts per hour, day, week . . .

If I had time to write all my thoughts, I’d have written a book by now — a blog post a day, maybe two.

Instead my thoughts are scattered; my time, full.
I’m off on adventures, trying to forget you,
Looking for the day I no longer think of you.

After all, you’ve forgotten me.

(A bunch of poetic lines, just erased, which didn’t rhyme or have a real place.)

Yes, somehow I’ll get through.
I’ll find the new me,
I’ll find a way . . .

But I’ll always miss you.

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I’m running Ragnar Tennessee this weekend with a group of friends and acquaintances from college. The race covers the nearly 200 miles between Chattanooga and Nashville, with each team member covering three legs totaling anywhere from 14 to 21(ish) miles each. It’s an overnight race. You don’t stop until you reach your destination. It’s going to be cold. It might thunderstorm. It’s going to be exhausting. It’s going to be fun.

When in doubt, pedal (or run) it out. It’s always worked for me!

(Hope all of you out there are gearing up for a good weekend — and hopefully get more rest than me!)

happy haphazard holidays

Well everyone, I suppose I can’t — or at least shouldn’t — put this off any longer. (Actually, I haven’t been putting it off — I’ve been slammed . . .) The time has come to wish you all a happy holiday season. So, Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas!! My holiday decor in Tennessee is pretty simple this year; I flew to California this past Monday, so there was no reason to go “all out” 2,000-plus miles away. Still, it’s nice to do something . . .

 

 
In an effort to get into the holiday spirit before leaving Tennessee (it had/has been a rough few weeks), two Friday nights ago I participated in the Tour de Lights Knoxville holiday bike ride. It was a 5-mile loop in downtown Knoxville for which many people decorated their bikes with Christmas lights and garland and dressed up in costumes, etc. It was fun, but it was COLD! It was 29 degrees and my hands were freezing by the time the ride was done. Next year I’ll cheer from the sidelines.

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Since then it’s been a whirlwind. I went to Santa Rosa on Tuesday to see friends and to work in my office, and, last night, before I headed home (to the fam), I went out to see some of the fire damage. It was too dark to take pictures, but the scene was unreal. My heart is broken for the whole community. Here are just a couple pics from a hike I did at a local park the previous day with friends. These don’t even begin to do justice to the extent of the structural damage in the city. Those who lost their homes (there are thousands) are looking at a rough holiday season this year.

Yesterday (Christmas Eve’s Eve) was eventful, too. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say life tough sometimes. (Or, all the time? The jury is still out for debate.)

In any event, I apologize for this haphazard post, but it’s the best I can do under the circumstances. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas! I’ll touch base again soon!

xoxo,

Jess